Thursday, November 02, 2006

Welcoming communities

I came upon an interesting US blog (doing my usual morning trawl of my favourite blogsites and links from them) by a US southern baptist minister called Michael Bryant. He can be found at

apropos of nothing as far as I could tell, he blogged this quote last Thursday:

'[C]entral to the Baptist vision of the church is the insistence that the church
must be composed of believers only. That is the distinctive mark of the church
for Baptists and others who fall within the stream of those who advocate what is
sometimes called the gathered church, or more often today, the believers'
church. This mark may also be called the principle of regenerate church
membership.' (Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 81-82)

This has always been the distinction between the gathered church and the parish model. The latter argues the church in a neighbourhood if for everyone who lives there, the former that the church is really for believers who covenant to worship together and live lives that are accountable to one another.

In some senses, the gathered model is more New Testament than the parish one. Church was for believers - indeed by the second century when following Jesus was illegal and punishable by death, the key role of deacons was to keep outsiders out.

But in our day, this model is less easy to follow and less attractive. People are more mobile, they choose church from a wide menu of options on the basis of preference (worship style, quality of Sunday School, emphasis in teaching, etc). On top of that, as churches we want to be open so that people who drop in are not only welcomed but drawn in by what we do.

This in turn feeds into any conversation we have about membership. If we make everyone who comes feel welcome, go out of our way to include them as fully as possible in the life of the church (inviting them to home groups, asking them to share in the financial upkeep of the fellowship, enabling them to volunteer in exercising ministry in some way through the church), how can we restrict 'membership' to a close inner circle of people who've jumped through a set of hoops we've erected for the purpose?

I want to run as open a fellowship as possible. I hold firmly to the view that people need to belong before they believe (and believe before they behave) and I hold firmly to the view that our fellowship is enriched by Christians with a variety of backgrounds.

So how do I make membership work in the light of this? Answers on a postcard, please...


Anonymous said...

Is it possible to sustain a church or any other 'organisation' without a core of committed people? While I'm equally of the view that we need to breakdown unnecessary barriers within the church, that make people feel unwelcome (at any stage of their involvement.Ensuring contintuity of vision, mission and purpose requires a group who've a deeper commitment to the church. Longevity.

I know of churches where this acheived by centralising the decision making process within the eldership. I've also seen this horribly abused, and nothing concerns me quite as much as too much power in the hands of too few in a church setting. So I think this needs to be set within a framework that necessitates/encourages opionion and contribution from those invovled in the different areas.

Wulf said...

Perhaps one way forward is to stop thinking of membership in such binary terms, in or out?

I think demonstrable Christian faith and commitment to helping a specific congregation forward are important qualifiers for making decisions that guide the congregation forward.

However, churches typically house many subgroups, some of which may well include people who aren't members at that congregational level and may not even be desirous to become so (home groups would be an obvious example). While I think that ceding them the right to vote on matters such as the appointment of a new deacon or a commitment to a major building project opens up a number of problems, there can be great scope for them to be involved in discussion and decision making in the the areas they are involved in. This would only be an extension of the way that even a traditionally led congregational church is likely to be practically led by circles within circles.

Membership remains predicated on Christian faith and a stated commitment to the congregation, in return for the power to vote in meetings. Within that, you will have the leaders of various ministries, overseen by some kind of diaconate, overseen in turn by a pastor and perhaps an eldership; outside that, you can still have people who make a direct difference and then the wider community. Rather than erecting barriers, you are simply defining various points along the continuum from intimately involved with the life of the congregation to not even knowing the congregation exists.

graham old said...

Maybe it's as simple as allowing a variety of ways of belonging, believing and behaving?